What is a batey (es)?
The Dominican Republic is home to approximately 230 State-owned bateyes that once formed the economic backbone of this small Caribbean nation. The bateyes are segregated rural slum communities built by the government on sugar cane plantations to house Haitian migrant sugar cane cutters. Estimates of the population living and working on these bateyes vary greatly, ranging from 200,000 to over 1 million, and accounting for anywhere between 7-12% of the total population of the Dominican Republic. Despite their size and critical role in the Dominican economy, batey populations suffer inordinately from economic isolation, extreme poverty, and food insecurity. Today the batey population is mixed between poor Haitians and their Dominican descendants and Dominicans.
The Batey habitat is made mostly of precariously built government quarters — or tiny, drafty shacks built with mud and split canes, often next to large dumps or open sewers. The small rooms the population shares often lack basic hygiene. In some bateyes, there are no sewage systems, electricity, running water, trash collection or paved streets…only ditches filled with muddy, parasite-ridden water and garbage heaps with rats, flies, mosquitoes, and wild dogs. Sanitation facilities or latrines are as minimal as can be allowed for human existence. These shortcomings, unfortunately, create conditions for diseases where they are limited medical dispensaries or drugs. Life expectancy is very low when compared to the statistics for the Dominican Republic. Teenage prostitution and pregnancy complete the picture, as these unemployed young women find the only ‘work’ available. The upshot is a meteoric rise in the spread of AIDS, and a very high infant mortality rate. For those who cannot travel to city hospitals, barely trained midwives, working in less than sterile environments, sometimes deliver the children. Childhood illnesses, including diarrhea, fever, respiratory infections, measles, parasitic ailments or malnutrition plague them right up into adulthood.
All the factors that make life difficult for Haitian men in the bateyes are present for the women, who face further vulnerability. Being of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic often means being marginalized; being a woman of Haitian descent is doubly difficult. Reports of domestic and sexual-based abuses against them often have no legal rights of redress. Financial hardship and a high unemployment rate in the bateyes force them to risk their lives prostituting in order to make ends meet. Repatriation of undocumented Haitians is done continuously in the Dominican Republic. The process through which it is done, however, sometimes triggers world outcry because the methods used by some are often viewed as in violations of basic international law or human rights principles. But the Dominican Republic is a sovereign nation and has the right to enforce its local immigration laws as it sees fit. These socio-economic ills create unfortunately a tragic cycle in which a future of poverty is practically inescapable.
Over the past decades, thousands of impoverished Haitian migrant and Dominican families living in the country’s owned 220 bateyes have realized almost no concrete improvement in the quality of their lives, due to the lack of access to primary and reproductive health care, lack of adequate standards of nutrition and sanitation, lack of educational, training and employment opportunities. In addition, during 1998, that population suffered the ravages of Hurricane Georges, which almost wiped out their already flimsy and vulnerable labor ghettos. While efforts have been made to help improve their precarious conditions, but enormous challenges remain. Humanitarian aid for the impoverished batey communities has been reduced drastically as the Dominican Republic’s economy has grown in the past years. On other fronts, it is still difficult for generations of undocumented Haitian families to easily access the country’s mainstream school or health care system due to fear of discrimination or deportation or extreme poverty. The results have been devastating. Thousands of children do not know how to read and write; women and their offsprings often die from readily preventable illnesses; and employment opportunities remain scarce. Both the Dominican Republic and Haiti are deeply affected by population migration patterns stemming from the realities of globalization, poverty and lack of resources on the island of Hispaniola. The neighboring sovereigns too are affected the uncontrollable spread of HIV/AIDS, and by limited access to health and education services, economic opportunities — empowerment and rights issues often driven by special interests and discriminatory practices.
The DR is one of the countries most affected by HIV in the Caribbean—together with Haiti, accounts for almost three quarters of the region’s infections. Reproductive health indicators for the marginalized batey populations are extremely poor. Fertility rates in rural areas of the DR reach as high as 4.0, well above the 2.8 national average. In a recent national health survey, only 1.2% of women in DR rural areas, including bateyes, reported using condoms for protection against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. It is not surprising, then, that although the national HIV infection rate in the DR is 1%, 5% of the batey population is infected. HIV rates among specific gender and age groups living on the bateyes are even more alarming; up to 8% of women under the age of 35 are seropositive, while 12% of men between the ages of 40-44 are infected – a number twelve times the national average. In some bateyes, the rate reaches as high as 13%. This negatively impacts health insecurity, as families take in children orphaned by AIDS, even as their productive, wage earning capacity decreases with the diminished health of PLWHAs. The population also suffers from many other diseases including hypertension, diabetes, cancer, malnutrition, parasitic ailments and tuberculosis.